Even before COVID-19, consumer behaviors were constantly evolving, making it difficult for retailers to gauge their strategies. To roll with the changes, many retailers have developed omnichannel strategies that meet consumers where they are and help them feel comfortable and excited about shopping, however they choose to do so.
When the pandemic started, some experts predicted that shoppers would never return to in-person shopping. And, while online shopping and browsing skyrocketed, consumer sentiment is nuanced and complicated. Some consumers want a return to normalcy — or at least some semblance of it. Others aren’t ready to return to in-person shopping, and there are still some that are comfortable shopping in person for some things but not for others.
To gain a better understanding about what consumers want and how to meet their needs, Criteo surveyed more than 230 of them in August 2020. In this article, gain a better understanding of where consumers stand on post-pandemic shopping. Read this article to learn about:
- Consumer comfort levels with different aspects of essential and nonessential shopping
- The need for hyper-personalized omnichannel strategies
- How to develop an omnichannel journey to optimize both the in-person and the online experience
Table of contents
The coronavirus has upended the way we shop
While that’s no longer headline news, the pandemic’s actual long-term effect is yet to be seen. During the initial lockdown, consumers panic-bought toilet tissue and set alarms to wake up in the middle of the night to land a grocery delivery slot. People bought cars to avoid public transportation and city dwellers sought to move to the suburbs, where they could enjoy more space. They shopped online for technology, casual clothes and exercise equipment — purchases to make life at home more comfortable. They even browsed for cars online and did virtual tours for homes.
And, as the pandemic remains present and will remain present until a vaccine is produced, consumers wonder if they will ever get their old familiar lives back again.
By late summer of 2020, many of the early restrictions were lifted, but as coronavirus cases increased in the fall, the restrictions constantly shifted. With so many uncertainties, advertisers are working to figure out not only what their customers will need before a COVID-19 vaccine is available, but also what they will want after the coronavirus is behind us.
This is so difficult because consumers still aren’t 100% sure what they are or aren’t comfortable with. Some consumers want a return to normalcy — or at least some semblance of it. But other consumers aren’t ready to return to in-person shopping. Still others are comfortable with shopping in person for some purchases but not for others.
This change in shopper preferences, while understandable, was abrupt. And consumer behavior continues to evolve as the conditions with the pandemic shift. Regardless of how long the health crisis lasts, consumers have changed and their behavior will reflect that.
Companies must understand what those changes in consumer behavior are and create an omnichannel strategy that meets consumers where they are and helps them feel comfortable and excited about shopping, however they choose to do so.
The New Shopping Normal — Insights From the Customer
When the pandemic started, some experts predicted that shoppers would never return to in-person shopping. And, while online shopping and browsing skyrocketed, consumer sentiment is nuanced and complicated. Perhaps any contradictions reflect the constant evolution in customer behavior. To get a snapshot of what consumers want, Criteo surveyed more than 230 of them in August 2020, gauging their comfort level with different aspects of essential and nonessential shopping. The survey revealed the following insights:
Customers were comfortable shopping in-store for everyday items, such as groceries and beauty and grooming.
Most preferred to buy these items in-store instead of online, with 72% saying they would shop for groceries in-store and 28% saying they would buy online. However, previous Criteo data tells a slightly different story. In late July, online health and beauty sales were up 37 percentage points year over year.
When shopping for home goods, such as furniture or carpeting, 51% said they would go to a store for the sensory experience, while only 27% said they would shop in a store even if they couldn’t touch and feel items.
If they could not shop in the store, customers said they would consider shopping online if the advertiser offered incentives. 32% said they would consider buying if the advertiser had a good return policy.
Additionally, 26% said using augmented reality would help them feel more comfortable making an online purchase. Similar to results in health and beauty, other Criteo data tells a different story in home furnishings. In late July, online sales of home improvement were up 31 percentage points year over year. Even after lockdowns were lifted, consumers continued to buy these items online at a much greater rate than they did in 2019.
When consumers are online shopping, regardless of whether for essential or nonessential items, they overwhelmingly want free shipping.
81% said this offering was most important when making an online buying decision. Free returns (68%) were the next priority, followed by fast, expedited shipping (47%).
Most consumers surveyed said they did not plan to buy big-ticket items, such as cars or homes, indicating the uncertain economy as one reason for hesitancy.
However, other insights suggest consumers are increasingly interested in these areas. Since late May, the auto industry has seen a resurgence in sales, perhaps as consumers look for alternatives to public transportation. Online leads for housing have recovered from March and are growing strongly year over year.
For U.S. car dealerships, Criteo data shows large spikes in automotive interest right around Memorial Day (up 17 percentage points year over year) and the Fourth of July (up 75 percentage points year over year). Outside the key tentpole days for dealerships, the overall recovery can be attributed to consumers rethinking their means of leisure travel and how they commute to and from work. With the virus still prevalent in communities across the country, consumers have looked to limit their contact with people outside of their immediate circles. We can expect to see the continued upward trend for automotive interest as we move into the holiday season and 2021.
For automotive service, parts and tires, many survey respondents said they had no intention to buy or lease a vehicle, with the uncertain economy one reason for hesitancy. As a result, consumers have looked to stretch the value of every dollar they spend. Upgrading or buying a vehicle that might be at the upper realm of their budget might be too much given the level of uncertainty, and because of this, consumers have looked to make do with what they have.
Many consumers have started making necessary basic repairs to help keep their current vehicles on the road. Additionally, because of the lockdown, some consumers have used their extra time at home to learn how they can fix/improve/upgrade their vehicles, whether it is out of need or desire.
COVID-19 has driven consumers to question many aspects of their lives, with housing one significant piece.
In the United States, online real estate leads have recovered from the March slump and now are growing strongly year over year. It appears COVID-19 gave consumers, particularly those residing in cities, the final nudge to move from one location to the next.
Implications of Survey Results
One of the implications of the survey, along with additional Criteo data, is that businesses need to use hyper-personalized omnichannel strategies to reach their audience since some consumers want to shop online, others want to shop in-person and some want to do both.
Understanding the different channels consumers use is critical. For example, we know customers are spending more time shopping online, but it’s not just through e-commerce websites or social media. They are increasingly spending more time on shopping apps. “51% of consumers said that they had downloaded at least one shopping app during the outbreak,” said David Fox, chief commercial officer and chief development officer at Criteo. “Of those consumers, 33% said they used one of their shopping apps multiple times a week.”
Given that a COVID-19 vaccine may not be readily available for months, advertisers should plan for six to nine months of uncertainty (if not more). But during that time, they need to actively seek to connect with customers, wherever the customers are, Fox said. “Businesses that are winning are those that deliver to customers where they are,” he said.
But, even as businesses look at the short term, they must also look long term, be aware of changes in consumer behavior in 2020 and 2021 and meet consumers’ needs in the future. What makes this challenging is that consumers may not realize yet how the coronavirus has affected their buying habits.
51% of consumers said that they had downloaded at least one shopping app during the outbreak.
33% of those consumers said they used one of their shopping apps multiple times a week.
That seeming contradiction is sometimes reflected in survey results. For example, in the Criteo study, consumers said they still liked going in-store for such items as beauty products and home furnishings. However, Criteo data shows that even after lockdowns were lifted, consumers bought these items online at a much higher rate than they did in 2019.
Real-life examples tell their own story. Contrary to survey data, Ali Oner, ceo of Boutique Rugs, found consumers were very willing to buy bigger-ticket household items, such as rugs, online. Since the lockdown, business has escalated, Oner said. “It’s like Black Friday every day for us.” Oner said the company aggressively advertised, using social media, paid search and influencer marketing — all were methods that provided a quick turnaround and reached customers already online and available. Amy Marshall, marketing strategist and former vice president, experience design and marketing, Prometheus Real Estate Group, found that the lockdown’s uncertainty galvanized some consumers to make major moves. “You’d think people aren’t moving, but they’re moving out of apartments to homes or to live closer to family to save money,” she said. In the Northern California area, many tech employees are working from home indefinitely. Since they can work from any location with Wi-Fi, many began reassessing where they wanted to call home, she added.
Although the housing industry may bounce back sooner than expected, some industries, such as business travel, are still struggling, Fox said. Even within some categories, results are mixed. In the auto industry, fleet-car sales tanked in response to the shutdown on business travel. However, used-car sales boomed as people looked for alternatives to public transportation.
Much is up in the air, Fox said. But as the uncertainty begins to settle down, customer loyalty will be up for grabs. “New customers will represent huge opportunities for advertisers, especially after the vaccine. Keeping customers happy and coming back will be pivotal for succeeding in the long run.”
“Keeping customers happy and coming back will be pivotal for succeeding in the long run.” – David Fox, Chief Commercial Officer and Chief Development Officer, Criteo
How Companies Should Prepare For The Future
The future is uncertain and constantly changing, yet advertisers must still strategize. One consistent aspect is the need to develop an omnichannel journey to optimize both the in-person and the online experience. Consumers are gradually becoming more comfortable with in-person interactions, and even if that takes more time, eventually, they will return. A Criteo survey found that 64% of shoppers missed shopping in stores and that the percentage of shoppers gaining confidence in going in-person was steadily increasing, Fox said.
But how can advertisers provide consumers with the in-person experiences they are looking for if they are still uncomfortable with physically being in stores? One way is for advertisers to deeply connect their online presence with their brick-and-mortar presence. For example, show consumers what items are available in their local store for curbside pickup in your advertising. Another example would be providing access to vehicle inventory for test drive at local dealerships. “Now that people have become accustomed to [online shopping], their buying habits will change. Tethering online with brick-and-mortar will be an essential step in driving the best customer experience,” Fox said.
Another way to improve the customer experience: provide some instant gratification. Criteo’s survey revealed that free or expedited shipping is incredibly important to consumers right now. Use online ads to promote those offers that are most enticing to your consumers.
While optimizing the customer experience will always be important, digital advertising will be key in attracting new and current customers, said Fox. In fact, in a recent Criteo survey, 54% of marketers said that marketing has become more important in acquiring new customers, and 60% said has become more important for retaining current customers.
As consumers gain more confidence going out in public, advertisers must continue to tie the in-person and online experiences together. One example? Target mobile advertisements to consumers who are in the vicinity of a local store or dealership location. “Those who come out successfully will be the ones that continue to drive a strong user experience online and maintain loyalty,” Fox said. That loyalty will rely on the advertiser’s logistics and ability to get products to customers quickly. It also relies on the ongoing service advertisers provide and how well they treat customers, he added.
Although consumer behaviors have rapidly evolved during the pandemic, not everything has changed. Consumers may be somewhat cautious about making big purchases, but they also crave normalcy. They want the convenience of online shopping, but they also want the experience of being in-person. Their level of comfort with shopping online for more expensive items as well as for being in public shopping venues is constantly shifting.
“Those who come out successfully will be the ones that continue to drive a strong user experience online and maintain loyalty.” – David Fox, Chief Commercial Officer and Chief Development Officer, Criteo
That makes it difficult for advertisers to anticipate customer need. But with an omnichannel approach, advertisers can collect insightful data and use it to more accurately meet customer needs and build loyalty. As advertisers look forward, they must develop strategies for both the short and long game and keep a steady pulse on consumer behaviors and interests the entire time.